From Russsia with love

Beautiful and enigmatic, a series of painted wooden dolls from Russia — one hollow doll housing another, seems like a mystery to uncover and a treasure to unearth.

Sets of Russian dolls, known as matryoshka or matrioshka dolls, also called the ‘Russian nesting doll’, are usually used as toys or decoration items. They come in numbered sets, wherein a smaller wooden doll is placed inside a bigger doll and this continues until all the varying-in-size dolls find placement inside the biggest mother doll. The smallest doll is usually never hollow.

Original blank dolls, created in differing shapes and sizes, are painted as a set to represent a similar pattern or subject. These are subsequently lacquered. The themes painted could be traditional, religious, familial, musical, artsy, political, could be about animals, cartoons, films, literary characters, fairy-tale figures, or could be custom-designed. Commonly seen Russian dolls are portrayals of a portly girl or a woman in peasant clothing, holding a utensil, flowers or even a bird. The dolls could also be painted as a man or a boy. The name matryoshka is considered to have come from the Latin word, mater, meaning mother, because, matryona or matryoisha, meant ‘a motherly woman’ in Russia.

Michael Terletskiy from Russian Crafts, Saint Petersburg, has been producing and selling nesting dolls since 1991. He explains, “Earlier, English-speaking people called these toys nesting or stacking dolls. Some people, from Finland or Australia, called it babushka, which means grandma. Sometime in 2000s, the name matryoshka became common. The first Russian matryoshka was said to have been made in the late 1890s, in an estate close to Moscow. It was crafted by Vasily Zvyozdochkin, who made blank wooden dolls which were painted by artist Sergey Malyutin.”

Amongst plenty of themes, the most popular Russian doll theme is floral — ranging from simple to intricate, with heavy decorations. Other popular themes are Russian tales, animals, political, ballet, celebrities and so on. Wood, mainly linden tree, is the main material. Linden is a unique, soft and light material, and after drying, keeps its shape. Birch tree wood is also used, but it is heavier and tougher; it is harder to turn dolls from it. Matryoshka dolls from birch were made in the past in Belorussia.

Speaking about the process of making these dolls, Terletskiy says, “At least two artists are involved — a craftsman who prepares the blank dolls, and an artist who paints them. At times, another person is employed for lacquering. Usually it is necessary to cover the painted surface with five to six layers of oil lacquer.”

These exquisite wooden specimen are reflections of the many facets of Russian art, culture and history, therefore they continue to influence admirers.


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